Luminato 2012 Review: Playing Cards 1: SPADES (Ex Machina and Luminato)

Luminato presents the North American premiere of visionary director Robert Lepage’s play, Playing Cards 1: SPADES in Toronto.

When going to see a show by visionary Quebec director Robert Lepage you have no idea what to expect, and, at the same time, you also know exactly what to expect. Lepage is famous for his use of intricate stage technology and avant-garde techniques to create his unique brand of theatrical magic.

Playing Cards 1: SPADES is the first part of a tetralogy of plays, designed for in-the-round theatre venues, each part themed around a suit of the playing card deck. SPADES takes place in Las Vegas in 2003 at the onset of the US invasion of Iraq. 

Upon entering the performance space at the Canadian Opera Company’s Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, the first thing you notice is the unique stage set-up. The performance takes place on a raised central stage with the audience completely surrounding it on all sides.

The innovative use of technology to tell a story on stage is Lepage’s trademark and the shape-shifting, polymorphic set for SPADES is a technological marvel to behold. The stage can perform a series of jaw-dropping permutations that would put the Transformers to shame.

Throughout the course of the show screens fly in and out, a series of trap doors allows actors and props to pop up from unexpected places, a rotating ring in the stage deck moves actors and scenery, doors pop up out of nowhere, and hydraulic lifts raise and lower a central platform to create a variety of settings. Swimming pools, saunas, hotel rooms, airports,  and indeed entire casinos materialize then disappear as if by magic.

The resulting effect of the stage wizardry is stunning. Lepage effectively appropriates the language of cinema for this production; the scenes blend into each other as if they were part of a tightly-edited movie and there is also a subtle, underlying musical score. The dynamic and cinematic qualities of the show are really engrossing and I found myself deeply engrained in the story, it didn’t feel like an intermissionless three-hour show at all.

While the staging is dazzling, it’s all in service to telling a collection of intimate, compelling and deeply human stories. The show’s collaboratively-written script is pithy and replete with symbolism, exploring themes like illusion versus reality, individual identity and group identity in the face of war.

In SPADES we meet a host of characters, each struggling with some form of identity crisis; a recovering gambling-addict in Vegas for a convention, an illegal Mexican migrant hotel maid in desperate need of medical help, a young Quebec couple on their honeymoon, a soldier grappling with the morality of fighting Bush’s War on Terror and a mysterious stranger who may in fact be the Devil himself. Their lives intersect and intertwine during a weekend in Las Vegas at the moment when the US invades Iraq.

The show features a multitude of characters but at curtain call, I was astonished to find that there were only six actors; Sylvio Arriola, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Sophie Martin, and Roberto Mori. It’s probably some of the most effective use of cast doubling I’ve seen. Through beautifully understated performances each of the actors is able to convey the humanity of the characters.

Another recurrent theme in Lepage’s work that I really enjoy is his bold, unapologetic internationalism. The characters are multi-national; French, British, Mexican, Spanish, American, Canadian and Danish and parts of the dialogue are spoken in Spanish, French and Danish (with surtitles showing on screens placed throughout the theatre).

As always Robert Lepage pushes the boundaries of conventional theatre. Don’t miss a chance to see a master at work and this stunning original, production. If SPADES is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what the next parts of the tetralogy hold in store.


  • Playing Cards 1: SPADES is playing at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Canadian Opera Company (227 Front Street East) till June 17, 2012
  • Performances June 13-16 at 7:00PM and June 17 at 2:00PM
  • Tickets $45, $65, $90
  • For tickets and additional information visit

Photo credit:

  • Photo by Érick Labbé